Plan would pay Georgia growers Georgia's Department of Natural Resources Board has adopted new rules for a program that proposes to pay farmers in the lower Flint River basin up to $10 million annually not to irrigate their crops during severe droughts.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act - approved last year by the Georgia General Assembly - was enacted to reduce irrigation use during times of extreme drought by providing funds to farmers who agree to idle their irrigation systems. Ten million dollars has been allocated to the fund and the money will be available this spring if the drought persists.

In a surprising development, the new rules stipulate that only farmers who draw water from farm ponds, creeks and other surface water sources will be eligible to participate in the program. This means that most of the farmers in the Flint basin of southwest Georgia - those who irrigate with groundwater sources - cannot participate in the program.

It's estimated that only about 30 percent of the water applied to crops in the basin come from surface water sources. The other 70 percent of the water comes from the ground, pumped out of the vast Floridan aquifer that lies under a large portion of south Georgia and also supplies water for households and industries.

The rules call for the director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division (EPD), Harold Reheis, to decide by March 1 of each year if a drought is imminent. If it is, farmers eligible for the program could bid on how much money they would require to hold their land out of irrigation for that year. The EPD expects the cost to be about $100 per acre.

If the bid is accepted, the funds received will be in lieu of expected profits from a crop produced on the irrigated land. To qualify for participation in the program, the water withdrawal must be a permitted withdrawal by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the irrigation system must have been in operation during previous years. Under the new rules, the program could be implemented this spring if Georgia's prolonged drought continues.

If sufficient acreage cannot be obtained by the bid process, then the order of participation will begin with the last permitted system (by date of application) and proceed in a reverse order. Irrigation systems that are operated after agreeing to participate in the program will be required to repay an amount equal to three times their accepted bid amount.

The law's basic aim is to help prevent the Flint River from dropping to levels during severe droughts where fish and other aquatic life no longer can survive. Reheis says he would consult with the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and the head of the agency's Wildlife Resources Division to determine how many acres need to be kept out of irrigation each year to keep enough water in the Flint River for wildlife.

Incomplete understanding Officials with EPD have acknowledged that their understanding of the Flint River is incomplete. Some studies indicated that for every gallon of water sucked out of the Floridan aquifer, the flow in the Flint decreased by as much as six-tenths of a gallon. Based on that assumption, computer models showed that the lower Flint should have dried up this past summer due to the extreme drought combined with heavy crop irrigation in the basin.

But even during the worst of the drought, when sections of the river were setting record daily low flows and tributaries were turning dry, the Flint's flow at Newton in Baker County was about 600 million gallons per day. At Bainbridge, it was about 1,000 million gallons per day.

This indicates, says Reheis, that the connection between groundwater and surface flow in the Flint River may be more complex than first was thought. For that reason, the drought act's current rules apply only to surface water withdrawals.

"We know for sure that for every gallon of water withdrawn from a surface water source, the flow in the stream decreases by a gallon," says Reheis.

Counties included in the Lower Flint River basin and affected by the Flint River Drought Protection Act include Seminole, Miller, Early, Decatur, Calhoun, Baker, Terrell, Dougherty, Lee, Worth, Sumter, Crisp, Turner, Dooly, Mitchell and Grady.

When determining how much to bid for taking land out of irrigation, Georgia farmers should begin by estimating returns from the crops they plan to grow under the irrigation system or systems, according to University of Georgia Extension economists. Estimating individual returns will require estimates of yields, expected price and operating costs. Worksheets for making such estimates are available from Georgia county Extension offices.

System overhead The majority of the fixed costs for growing irrigated crops are for irrigation system overhead, including depreciation, taxes and interest, say the economists. Any fixed cash costs still will be incurred even if the system does not operate.

However, the operator may have irrigation debt payment obligations.

Attention should be given, advise the economists, to the total cash flow obligations of the operator. If a farm lender has loaned funds with the expectation that the irrigation system will help generate funds to pay production costs plus the annual debt payment, growers should contend their lender to determine how they view leaving the irrigation system idle for a year.

"Use planning caution if you consider growing dryland crops on this land," say the economists. "Past experiences have shown that dryland yields of most crops - in years of severe drought - are extremely low, often zero."

Some provisions of the Flint River Drought Protection Act raise concerns about a farmer's operational procedures, say the economists. Producers should understand the following items:

- Only the irrigation permit holder can sign up. If you are a tenant, how do you fit into the planning process? Further, irrigated land in parts of southwest Georgia rents for $125 to $155 per acre. If a bid of $100 is accepted, the land owner will have less income than when renting, and the lessee will be left with no income.

- The March 1 sign-up date can create problems with planning. This date has been selected as rainfall in January and February can be normal or excessive, thereby altering the stream flow of water. But most growers in this area completed their planning prior to Jan. 1, and they have completed soil preparation by March 1. Hence, some production costs are incurred before the proposed sign-up date.

- If an irrigation system is leased or being financed, any associated payments must be made. A contract with a lender will be mandatory if a grower intends to give up irrigating for a period of time.

- The act specifies that the period of "non-irrigation" is for the time period March 1 until the next Jan. 1. This could affect decisions about fall-seeded crops.

- Current guidelines specify that bids can be submitted only for surface water withdrawn directly from the Flint River or its tributaries.

- What effect will the plan have on the Risk Management Agency (crop insurance) yields? What yield levels will be used in a year of not producing a crop under irrigation? Will not planting a crop or going dryland for a year affect production history over time? Or, if a grower who traditionally irrigates plants a non-irrigated crop, what yield level can be insured?

- Other factors must be accounted for when considering participation in the plan. One of the most difficult items to explain is fixed costs versus variable costs. In short, a system that has been installed long enough to have been "depreciated off the books" would have a bid less than a system that still is being financed.

Return too high - It appears likely that high-value crops (peanuts, most vegetables, some cotton) will have an estimated return that is too high to submit a bid low enough to be accepted. Each grower should make the most realistic estimate of costs and returns.

- The aggregate $10 million in the first year would result in 100,000 acres of irrigated systems being idled with an average bid of $100 per acre. Given the yield responses obtained from irrigation, it's likely these funds will not idle the desired amount of irrigation systems. If so, any means of idling more systems should be made available prior to submitting the bids.

- Different irrigation systems on the same permit cannot have different bids. In some cases, a grower might submit a bid for one amount for the pivot-irrigated acreage on a permit and an entirely different bid amount for the traveler-irrigated acreage on the same permit. The same logic could apply for different crops on the same permit. And, you most likely would bid one amount for peanuts and an entirely different amount for soybeans on the same irrigation permit. But this option is not allowed under current guidelines. Any bid submitted must be for the entire acreage on the permit.